Dealing with Criticism in Music

While I was studying classical guitar and composition at the conservatory, I not only learned how to play the guitar well and write music, but I also received a lot of criticism for my work from some of my teachers. I found this extremely difficult to deal with, though there are a few things that helped me get over it.

When I began to study composition at the conservatory of Ghent (Belgium) in 1994, my teacher seemed very supportive, and my first year went well. As I went on to my second year, my teacher suggested I should study composition with someone else. At the time, I did not understand why he would say that, as the first year had been so positive and rewarding, but as the second year progressed, my teacher’s criticism became more intense. Verbally and non-verbally, he let me know he did not like my compositions, saying things like my music was “too slick,” and he certainly did not mean that in a good way.

It is only as I got older that I was able to put my teacher’s comments in perspective. When a student studied classical composition in the conservatory in those years, one was supposed to write “intellectual, pioneering music.” This meant difficult, atonal pieces that, in my view, nobody wanted to write, nobody wanted to play and nobody wanted to hear. There was another composition teacher at the conservatory of Ghent who wrote film music, and the “intellectual crowd” thought his pieces were—and I quote directly—”garbage.” Consonant, tonal music was really looked down upon. One was certainly not supposed to write a beautiful melody. My composition teacher told me my music wasn’t the most groundbreaking and I think he implied that it was supposed to be “innovative.”

I found myself in a difficult situation in those years and tried to write this “pioneering” atonal music, at the cost of losing my integrity and authenticity. A few years ago, I wrote a short snippet of musical chaos for humorous effect; I suppose it would have gotten the approval of my composition teacher:

(“Boop Beep Music” – written and performed by Emiel Stöpler.)

Interestingly, this dense and “difficult” music can be rather easy to compose and improvise. Swedish composer Anders Eliasson talks about getting to know the modern classical music idiom when he himself studied at the conservatory. He wrote:

It was no big deal to master all that – it was only a question of techniques, not of music, nothing about it was authentic.

I have also run into difficulty with my former guitar teacher, with whom I studied in The Netherlands before I entered the conservatory. I am much indebted to him for his inspiring guitar lessons, but in later years, as we kept in touch, I found my taste in music diverging from what he liked. He did play some of my music and seemed to like that, but finds many of my pieces too light, too sweet and generally “too nice.”

So when I finished this crossover instrumental guitar ballad recently, I felt insecure about my music. In my mind I heard nothing but criticism, as if I had internalized my former teachers’ comments.

( “Nightcap” – written and performed by Emiel Stöpler.)

While I was feeling troubled by all the criticism from the past, I have also experienced other, more positive developments. One is to keep in mind that a person criticizing my work may have reasons for doing so that have nothing to do with the quality of my piece. They may have their own frustrations by not finding the approval they seek or simply be insecure. Another thing is that in recent months, I have had spontaneous recollections of people from the past few years who were very complimentary about my music, but because my inner critic had been so dominant, that never really registered with me. Now I am finally able to enjoy those positive comments they gave. And finally, I do realize that criticism can be helpful, though I must say, this works best when it’s constructive and not with the implication that one’s work is totally useless.

In conclusion, this blog made me realize just how crazy it was to try to major in composition at the conservatory. It was not until much, much later that it occurred to me that I should have studied composition with someone else. I understand not everyone will like my music, just like I don’t like all music myself, but in spite of individual taste, music can still have quality, like being well-performed, well recorded or have interesting melodies or chords progressions. And in my former composition teacher’s defense, he did say my musical ideas were very creative.

I personally really enjoy creating music—composing is a state of pure bliss—and I am grateful that there are people out there who can connect to it in a positive way. That also means I don’t have to beat myself up by looking for approval from people who, for whatever reason, don’t like what I do.

2 replies
    RITA GUIA says:

    Hi Emiel,
    great writing and great music! Sometimes to know the freedom, we need to know what its opposite is! 😉 So, I think you had a very good training toward finding the expression of your true voice! That piece of guitar is amazing! Talk to you soon!

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